Air Travel: Toddlers

Travel Series: The ABC’s of Flying with Toddlers

Welcome to the second installment of our summer travel series…flying with your toddler! For the purpose of this series, we are going to consider children between one to three years old as “toddlers”. (Click HERE If you are looking for baby flight tips!)

The key to understanding this age: squiggle. Children this age are newly mobile, and they want to move!! They are exploring their new freedom, figuring out boundaries, and sometimes even testing them as they reach the mid-twos and into the threes.

What to do with all this energy? My best advice is to work with it instead of against it.

A.) Talk to your children about what to expect.

I am a big believer in having one-sided conversations with your children at this age. I know they are probably not answering in complete sentences…it doesn’t mean that the information isn’t being soaked in. Take the time to explain and describe the experience.

Some things to highlight and fill in the details about might be…

We are going to pack – we are going to drive and park the car – we will go through security – we will wait to get on the plane – we will have to sit in our seats with our seat belts on – we will have fun – we will get to see the clouds – it’s going to be an adventure – it’s going to be cramped and feel like a long hug – we will get snacks – when we get off the plane we will see (people? place?) – we will have fun!

Yes, fun is in there more than once because THOUGHTS ARE THINGS! Start planting the seed in your child’s mind that this is going to be FUN and maybe, just maybe, (okay probably!) you will have a fun time if you allow yourself to experience a trip from your child’s point of view. Everything is new – big – amazing – and because you are there, they know they are safe.

Show them pictures of airports and airplanes. If you are going to take their car seat on the plane, tell them they are going to have it on the plane and that it may feel like a very long car ride. You can explain the experience of takeoff and landing – the opportunity to introduce concepts and vocabulary is endless when it comes to travel.

If you still have to carry travel documents (usually a yes for children under two) such as a birth certificate or vaccine record – check with your airline for requirements – then show them those, and show them where they are in your bag.

Once our children were mobile, I would also make them a name tag (2″x3″) to attach to their clothing.  On one side, I would put their picture, name and birthdate.  On the other side, I would write our names, phone numbers, list any allergies and their blood type, and the phrase, “I AM A U.S.A. CITIZEN”.  I would laminate this, and then attach it to their clothing with a safety pin.  You may want to do some trial runs with this before travel day so that they are used to it, and you can figure out where best to put it so that it stays on without bothering them.  The best spot for our kiddos was at their waist right around the area where a waistband was out of the way of a seatbelt.

I would also fill out a couple of index cards with the same info and tape it to their car seats and the underside of their strollers.  I am a big “just in case” person – thankfully, we never had to use them.  My intention was that our children could be identified, cared for, and quickly reunited if we were separated or god-forbid, incapacitated for whatever reason.  Once I placed them, I would show them where they were and tell them that this information would help reunite us if we were separated.

B) Packing List for the flight

Diapers – Plan on taking two sizes for the flights…one that fits and one size bigger to catch blowouts – put the child in both of them for the duration of the flight. This would also work if there is going to be extended car trips at your destination.

Books – we love the Indestructibles series: they are lightweight, bendable, and there are no words! You can introduce vocabulary or make up a new story every time!! Even if you can’t find these, something your child can hold aside from your phone is great! At this stage, “reading” also includes eating the books sometimes. Pick two or three favorites if you are packing board books – and maybe read them in different voices, or change up the story a little bit every time and see if they notice!

Toys – some favorites that you know they like, some new ones wrapped up as gifts. We would buy a little set and wrap up each piece individually to be opened up every time the alarm rang on a watch or phone.

Snacks – I seriously believe that you cannot pack enough of these. We had a small soft-sided travel cooler that would carry a small ice pack and lots of cheese sticks. I also like the “handful” snacks from Trader Joe’s (lots of protein!), and also fruit leathers or cereal snacks. The cereal snacks serve a double purpose… first, you can make shapes or letters with them on top of a napkin on the tray table…and then your toddler can eat them up.

Wipes – do not leave home without them!! I put some in my purse and in the diaper bag.

Wet mat – I shared THESE last week as well – I never left home without several of these tucked into my bags…they are great for the car seat or your lap if your child is going to sit on you, and they also make great floor mats if you are going to be at the airport for a while and need a place for your child to sit aside from the dirty floor.

Extra clothes – for both child and parent!! When a spill or a blow-out happens, it is hardly ever contained to one person. As I mentioned last week, extra clothes is packed into zip lock bags – it lets you squeeze out the air for tight packing, and also provides a container to hold any icky smells/wet stuff you don’t want getting on the rest of the items you packed in your bag.

Wet bags or zip bags – I always carry an extra wet bag and a few quart-size sealable plastic bags…you just never know. They can store dirty clothes, uneaten snacks, serve as containers for errant toys or crayons…they have always come in handy.

Coloring or writing implements – a spiral notebook and triangle crayons or pencils that don’t roll are my favorites!!

C) Flight Tips

  1. As in last week’s tip list, do your best to plan flights around their sleep times. Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, get through security, and then have time to feed them and play with them in the gate area before you board the plane. Walk up and down the concourse, or have races, or go window shopping if your airport has shops along the way…anything to get them primed for a nap on the plane. Once you board and get them settled, you can all sleep through the flight.
  1. Take advantage of any early boarding policies for families with small children. At this age, some kiddos will still use their carrier, others may be too big or too squiggly and your best bet to move through the airport is a stroller…either way, it adds up to a lot of gear!! Early boarding gives you extra time to lug on any of the bags, car seats, assorted gear, etc. that you don’t gate check*, and let’s you get your children situated without the huffing and puffing of the line of people behind you. Wait until they are pleasantly surprised when your child travels well…they will change their tune!
  1. Have a strategy for take-off and landing – at least two to three ideas to help them deal with the air pressure changing in their ears. If you are still nursing and you have a lapsit child, you can breastfeed them during take-off and landing. If your child is in their car seat and/or not breastfeeding anymore, then you can offer them a drink or show them how to yawn big and wide…make it into the “Yawning Game”…who can yawn the biggest?!? Or if your child is a little older, you may even consider chewing gum for them. Whatever it is, have a plan in place to help them move air down through their throat to help counteract the effects of changing air pressure.
  1. Definitely take advantage of empty aisles between service times if, despite your best laid plans, your sweet pea did not fall asleep for the duration of the flight. As long as the seat belt light is off, you two can go up and down the plane. I would also use a timer for this…when the alarm goes off, we will get to walk up and down the plane one time. Have them look for a color as they walk, or maybe a letter – let the walk be a little different every time.
  1. Relax – your child and the people around you feed off of your energy. If you are anxious, they will multiply it. If you are relaxed, your child feels your safety, and the people around you will feel your confidence and probably start to relax a little themselves. If I can make eye contact, I will greet them and make a little small talk. You can even invite them to help and make them your ally…

Hello, this is my Sweet Pea’s (x)th trip…we are so excited to have fun!! We have packed lots of entertainment in our magic bag…and of course, if you have any positive travel tips for toddlers, I’d love to hear them! Hopefully we will all get to sleep…and if not, we are going to have lots of fun learning and exploring along our trip to (destination)!!


That’s about all I can think of for now. Did I forget anything? I would love to hear what works for your family – please leave me your best tips in the comments!


*gate check: once you get to the gate with all your gear, you can check anything you don’t want to or can’t carry in the main cabin due to size restrictions. I would pack a couple of large garbage bags to store the gear in and attach a name tag and claim ticket to the outside of the bag.